Nothing: Part 14

A woman sat across from me in the subway car. I couldn’t stop staring. Her face was a study in symmetry. Every feature flawless, the skin unblemished, the complexion luminous, incandescent. The hair was dark and thick with a lock falling over her left eye when she bent down. Her lashes were long, each downward swoop concealing a twinkling intelligence. It embarrassed me to be caught staring. It’s true what they say – you can always tell when someone’s staring.

As I stole glances at her I tried picturing her as a central character in a novel. I wanted to come up with words to describe her to a reader. Would it be possible to describe her in a sentence that wasn’t burdened with adjectives? Could I divine anything about her simply by looking at her as so many novelists believe can be done? It seemed impossible.

I started studying others in the car, wondering if other more seasoned faces offered insights into the souls within. Some reflected stress through their furrowed brows, some painted a picture of resignation, some showed anger and discouraged eye contact. But the only difference between her face and others seated around her was the absence of any surface clues in hers. What traits would I attribute to her if I forced her into a novel of mine?

My stop was next and she soon became a passing thought. But it did make me ponder physical descriptions in the novels I’ve read. The authors spend time getting it right, making the person real to the reader. For instance the woman defined by her concavity: concave torso, concave cheeks; her concavity being the only outstanding physical attribute in Will Self’s short story – Ward 9. I look at the folks around me and wonder if I would have ever been able to describe a rather pinched looking person with all that the word “concave” implies…caving in on oneself, imploding…

Novelists always highlight a central character by assigning attributes which would result in instant admiration, revulsion, sympathy or pity for their creation. A character in a novel spots another for the first time and accurately guesses most things about the person, things like…the confidence masking an underlying vulnerability, the clothes telling a story, the nails, the hair, the body fat, all leading the audience toward a definitive conclusion about the person being regarded. Is such accurate assessment possible in real life?

Perhaps it is, because one sees it even in memoirs: Sting seeing Trudie for the first time at his neighbor’s place, noting the long scar on her face, her lips, the lips that reminded him of a former girlfriend who had just passed away…and feeling an instant attraction. Others writing about their lives and saying how they knew someone was THE ONE when they met him or her. Does it seem so in hindsight, perhaps? A false memory, a conflation that makes one believe what they felt was instantaneous rather than gradual or incremental?

I think I need to pay more attention to faces if I ever want to realize any latent dreams about being a writer of fiction. I would have to hone the skills of surreptitious viewing and analysis of facial expressions and other physical attributes and body languages. Some blinders would have to go, some inhibitions discarded. I would have to be immune to the embarrassment of embarrassing someone with my intense regard.

Ah, on second thoughts, who wants to appear so creepy!! Forget novel writing!

I caught sight of my own reflection in a shop window and had to make some instant adjustments – my lower lip appeared to be pushing upwards at my upper lip, chin tilted upwards, giving my mouth a sad and defiant look all at once. How confused would that make another wannabe writer who was trying to come to some conclusions about what a sad and defiant face signalled about me? That’s assuming I’d be a protagonist in this imaginary sly watcher’s future literary effort, and not some mediocre sideliner.

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